Governments and state agencies have long been plagued by complaints that their information is hard to get and that citizens get the run around trying to track down forms and critical state agency information. To improve service to citizens and make information quicker and easier to find, one state is employing the services of the Internet’s famous butler—Jeeves.

Jeeves, of “Ask Jeeves” fame, is a natural language search program initially deployed at Jeeves Solutions, a division of Ask Jeeves, is now selling the technology (called JeevesOne) to other enterprises. One client is Washington State, whose residents can now ask “George” (the state’s site icon is a George Washington character) for answers and access data—from unemployment forms to voting poll locations.

For their part, Washington state officials are getting a valuable view of what services citizens want and the issues with which they’re concerned. The technology has also proven to be a boon for the state’s tech team because the hosted service requires minimal support.

How it all came about
The state chose Jeeves Solutions and its natural language search because it wanted to make its portal, Access Washington, as easy to use as possible. The state’s Department of Information Services (DIS) worked with 12 other state agencies to load anticipated questions into the “Ask George” program when the three-year-old portal relaunched in February 2001.

The best aspect for the state’s tech staff is that Jeeves Solutions is hosting the entire service. Following the initial implementation phase, which took about 12 weeks, the state’s tech staff investment has been minimal—less than half the time of two fulltime IT professionals.

“In state government, as at a lot of companies, it’s very hard to come by positions and people,” said Rhonda Polidori, digital government Web properties manager for DIS, on why the state wanted a hosted solution.

“It’s [finding and budgeting staff] harder than outsourcing services to the experts. That’s what we wanted to do with this search. We wanted it to be really good, and we wanted the company to host it and maintain and manage the site for us.”

When the state portal first launched, a simple search engine was included, but it didn’t fulfill expectations.

“We did have a search capability, but the results weren’t very good,” Polidori explained. “Access Washington is a portal, so we really need to have the best customer service we could possibly have.”

State officials wanted something easier than the traditional Boolean search or a complex site menu system to provide service. Access Washington is designed to be a citizens’ portal, with the goal of being easy to use for a wide variety of users, said Polidori.

George is “instructed” to search most Web sites that are within the domains of Washington state government agencies. It also finds selected content on city and county Web sites.

Gleaning valuable information
Brian Dirks, DIS Web program development manager, spends a great deal of time with George. Dirks tracks the questions being asked and makes sure state agencies are providing good answers.

The Jeeves analytics feature, which tells what questions are asked, is a critical tool in helping the site be as user friendly as possible, Dirks explained. The analytics come in “almost real time”—Dirks can see reports on questions as recent as two days old.

Popular questions include variations of “Where can I find unemployment information?” and “How can I get licensing information?” Other top 20 searches include questions about unclaimed property, the state lottery, and divorce. George gets about 150,000 queries a month.

“It gets a little bit seasonal,” Dirks added. “We just had an election, and people were seeking answers from George on election questions: ‘Where can I vote?’ and ‘Where can I find an elections pamphlet?’”

DIS first consulted with interested state agencies and the State Library, then tapped into its own Internet usage statistics to come up with a “top 200” list of frequently asked questions for state government.

Using these questions and associated key words, Jeeves’ editorial team built a knowledgebase of questions covering a wide range of topics. This database attempts to capture the top five percent of all questions typically asked of state agencies. In addition, every two weeks Jeeves “spiders,” or scans, more than 300,000 state agency Web pages to capture and index content for Ask George queries.

George keeps track of which of these pages are most often selected. Over time, the most popular become ranked with higher relevancy for certain search terms, and rise to the top of the answer choices.

DIS and Jeeves Solutions editorial and quality assurance teams also monitor query statistics to make sure the right answers are being found. This, according to DIS, will help the state build the best set of questions possible for the knowledgebase, and make appropriate recommendations to state agencies regarding content missing from their Web sites.

The Jeeves technology beats site menus and Boolean search engines because it quickly ties inquiries to specific answers, he explained.

“We think people want the ability to get to the right information very quickly, and by having a natural language search tool, it really enhances the user experience, and helps drive them to the information extremely fast. They can skip all the other navigation and go to search, and, bingo, they’re there,” said Dirks.

The Jeeves technology
According to James Speer, director of product management for Jeeves Solutions, JeevesOne service has three levels, ranging from an out-of-the-box search product that can be up and running in seven business days to an enterprise model that links the Ask functionality to core business applications like SAP and takes a longer deployment time.

All levels provide a high level of control over the results, Speer said, and the companies using Ask technology can suggest related questions and answers. For example, an office store can promote a sale on toner to a customer who searches for a printer.

“A lot of our customers have found that controlling that search experience is as important as controlling the overall navigation structure of the Web site,” he said.

JeevesOne supports the Microsoft and Sun product lines. Hardware requirements range from a single server to five or 10 machines for millions of documents. The number of boxes needed also depends on the traffic to the Web site and the number of questions being asked.